We haven't covered the coupé version of the new(ish) Renault Mégane in these pages up to now. That is because I hadn't driven one except in the form of a larger-than-life concept car whose every styling feature was exaggerated. The concept car was hopeless to drive, having a tiny Twingo engine, a very basic structure and suspension, and no seals around its upward-opening doors. But it looked fantastic. Which was the whole point.
Now please meet the production coupé that captures the concept car's spirit. This is the Renaultsport Mégane 250, sitting low on big wheels shod with ultra-low-profile tyres, bodywork bearing blistered wheelarches, and a variety of aerodynamic addenda along sills and valances.
So, what exactly is the Mégane 250? It is a very fast and sleek machine designed for proper driving fun, and powered by the most muscular variation yet, at 250bhp, of Renault's 2.0-litre, turbocharged engine. But even a glorified hot hatchback such as this could head off in one of two directions.
The first is one which Renault does particularly well, the hardcore enthusiast's car at the top of its class for interaction and entertainment. The previous-generation Mégane R26 was the ultimate example, with a stripped-out, ultra-light, motorsport-flavoured R26.R version for the truly committed. The second is the rapid, civilised GT car in a compact package, fun and capable but not too demanding: a Volkswagen Golf GTI is a good example.
So here's the solution, formalising from the start what happened by evolution with the previous Mégane. You sell a regular version, costing £22,995, and a Cup version with racier suspension and some gadgets omitted for £1,000 less. Those gadgets include automatic operation for the air-conditioning, hands-free door unlocking, electrically-adjustable and heated front seats, leather trim, automatic headlights and wipers, and a smarter stereo. All of this I'd be entirely happy to forgo.
So the Cup for me, then? It's not quite so simple. One of the best drives I've ever had involved an R26 in France's Ardèche region, and I hoped to recreate the sensation in the new 250. On some sweeping Spanish roads, this time, I didn't get quite the same feeling of flow and connectedness. The engine, though very powerful, felt too "polite"; this, in an intriguing episode of psychological connectedness, made the too-firm suspension more annoying because the trade-off – instant thrill and sound-effects when accelerator is depressed – wasn't there.
And the racing-style seat annoyed because the non-height-adjustable seatbelt cut into my neck, and the whole car made me suffer for too much of the time to make the rare moments of blood and thunder worth the wait. This was disappointing. Then I got into the regular, non-Cup version, with softer springs, dampers and anti-roll bars, no limited-slip differential, and those plusher seats which didn't force the belt into the wrong place.
Bingo! As a road car, it felt much better: more fluent, more supple, still precise in its responses, and a lot easier to drive on wet surfaces because I could feel more clearly what was happening under the tyres.
Some of that R26 magic was back, albeit in a more grown-up, less visceral form, and the regular 250 had saved the new car's honour. And it must be said that, thanks to the bizarrely-named PerfoHub front suspension which moves the steering axis outwards and stops unwelcome forces acting on the front wheels, the 250 does get its power to the road with remarkable decorum.
We finished up on a sinuous racetrack, back in Cups and playing with the telemetry system. It records acceleration times, lap times, cornering forces and more, and it lets you tailor the accelerator's response. "Extreme" – unusable on the road in its ferocity – is perfect for the track, an environment in which the 250 Cup excels. It's a brilliant machine for trackdays. You can have its suspension and differential in the regular car if you like, but I wouldn't.
Do you detect some ambivalence here? Where Renault before had one car (the R26) able to meld road-car and track-car roles brilliantly, it now has two cars objectively better suited to each role. The trouble is that the versatility, the inspired compromise, has been sacrificed. The new Mégane 250s are more capable cars in their chosen fields, yes. But the old R26 was more fun, more of the time.
Ford Focus RS: £26,995. More expensive, more powerful with 305bhp from a 2.5-litre, five-cylinder engine, more visceral and sometimes unruly on uneven UK roads. Hugely entertaining, wholly unsubtle.
Mazda 3 MPS: £21,500. Closer to the Mégane in refinement, price and power (260bhp). Recently reinvented with new looks, far better steering and a likeable personality. Ride is too firm.
Volkswagen Scirocco R: £26,945. Ultimate Scirocco has 265bhp from 2.0 litres, low-key looks and a calmer, more Mégane-like demeanour than Focus. Very effective and enjoyable driving machine.
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